Hundreds of stray dogs have learned to survive in the woods around the exclusion zone – mainly descendants of those left behind after the nuclear disaster, when residents were banned from taking their beloved pets to safety
by Julie McDowall
We are in the woods behind the Chernobyl plant when the dog runs at us. It is thin, with brindle fur and yellow eyes. Igor, our guide, makes a lunge and clamps his hands over its snout. They wrestle in the snow and icy water shakes from the trees. The dog’s eyes flash as Igor grabs a stick and throws it into the trees. Distracted, the animal chases it and our little group is free to move. But the dog reappears and drops the stick at Igor’s foot. He throws it again. The dog brings it back. I almost laugh with relief.
Igor, who, it turns out, is very familiar with the dog, throws a few snowballs, which it tries to catch and chew. “This is Tarzan,” says Igor. “He’s a stray who lives in the exclusion zone. His mum was killed by a wolf, so the guides look out for him, chuck a few sticks, play a few games. He’s only a baby, really …”
Tarzan isn’t alone. There are approximately 300 stray dogs in the 2,600km² zone. They live among the moose and lynx, the hares and wolves that have also found a home here. But while the Mongolian horses and Belarusian bears were recently introduced to the area, and other animals have come in as opportunists, the dogs are native.
After the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, Pripyat and the surrounding villages were abandoned, and residents were not allowed to take their pets to safety. Chernobyl Prayer, a devastating oral history of the period, tells of “dogs howling, trying to get on the buses. Mongrels, alsatians. The soldiers were pushing them out again, kicking them. They ran after the buses for ages.” Heartbroken families pinned notes to their doors: “Don’t kill our Zhulka. She’s a good dog.” There was no mercy. Squads were sent in to shoot the animals. But some survived and it is mainly their descendants that populate the zone.
But it’s not all bad news. The dogs that live near the zone’s checkpoints have little huts made for them by the guards, and some are wise enough to congregate near the local cafe, having learned that a human presence equals food. These canine gangs act as unofficial Chernobyl mascots, there to greet visitors who stop at Cafe Desyatka for some borscht.
Nadezhda Starodub, a guide with the Chernobyl tour specialist Solo East, says the visitors (there are no “tourists” in the zone) love the dogs. “Most of the time people find them cute, but some think they might be contaminated and so avoid touching the dogs.” There are no rules that forbid a visitor from handling them, but Nadezhda asks her charges to exercise the same common sense they would when approaching any stray. “Some guides are afraid of complaints,” she says, “so they try to avoid the dogs to stay on the safe side. But I love them.”